Tue. Aug 9th, 2022

The debate over the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic has become toxic. There is still no agreement on whether this new disease is due to the transmission of a bat coronavirus naturally to humans or was the result of a laboratory leak, whether it was from a natural or engineered bat coronavirus.

Currently, there is not enough data to solve the riddle. But one thing is certain: The debate has shed an alarming new light on the dangers of a series of scientific studies called Gain of Function research that seeks to increase the transmission or pathogenicity of animal viruses to infect humans.

The Covid-19 origin saga evokes nuances of the early days of the AIDS epidemic and takes me back to the origins of its virus, HIV-1.

Pandemics are rare and can be devastating, as was the Spanish flu in 1918-1919.  But far more common are so-called viral overflows

Pandemics are rare and can be devastating, as was the Spanish flu in 1918-1919. But far more common are so-called viral overflows

In the last years of the millennium, we heard rumors that it was made by the KGB, only to be countered by allegations that the CIA was behind it.

The reality was that in the early 1980s, when the HIV-1 virus broke out around the world, mankind did not have the technology to design such a disease.

It took more than a decade before we were able to paint the broad brushstrokes of AIDS ‘origins. We now know that HIV-1 jumped over from chimpanzees for a while in the middle of the 20th century. There is a large repertoire of similar viruses in African monkeys.

Fast forward to the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus causing Covid-19-in Wuhan some time in late 2019.

Given its brutal impact around the world, it is legitimate to ask where it came from. We actually would not be bananas. The simplest answer is that SARS-CoV-2 came from an animal, ultimately from a bat. But the central question is: where is the closest relative, the brother or sister virus, not the distant cousin? If we knew, you would not read this passage.

Given its brutal impact around the world, it is legitimate to ask where Covid came from

Given its brutal impact around the world, it is legitimate to ask where Covid came from

The difference between the early days of HIV science and today is the swirling firepower that virologists now have due to phenomenal advances in science and technology.

Genomes can be synthesized in a test tube from their genetic drawings. We can cut and paste DNA in all sizes, entire genetic sections, sentences and even individual words just like writing an email. We also have spelling correctors.

Virologists like me have been doing this since the 1980s with ever-increasing ease.

In 2012, a heated debate erupted when it was discovered that a small number of influenza virologists constructed avian influenza viruses with relatively little danger to humans to see if they could be mutated into viruses with the potential to release a pandemic.

It sounds like something from a science fiction movie, so why on earth did they do this? Let me explain.

Pandemics are rare and can be devastating, as was the Spanish flu in 1918-1919. But far more common are so-called viral overflows.

In particular, chicken flu viruses can be transmitted to humans, usually poultry-handling. Infection can be fatal – sometimes six out of ten victims die, which is frightening.

Influenza researchers feared that such viruses could mutate one day and trigger a pandemic. So they wanted to know what combination of mutations could make a flood virus easily transmitted between people by respiratory route.

After using deliberate genetic engineering, they discovered that only a handful of mutations were needed.

This is not surprising if you understand the flu virus. But the real problem is the fact that scientists could now create new, highly pathogenic viruses that do not exist in nature through Gain of Function work.

I was among those who wondered what would happen if a laboratory accident happened and a scientist got infected with such a virus that we had no immunity to and then they inadvertently walked out of the laboratory.

So why does this seem risky? Researchers said it would help them predict the next pandemic virus. With that knowledge, they argued that it would be possible to develop preventative vaccines and drugs that could be stored frozen and brought out to sip any pandemic in the bud.

It’s a great story that lured some leading agencies that fund biomedical research. But it’s a pipe dream for a number of reasons, involving sinister aspects of virology. Predicting the next pandemic virus or strain is Mission Impossible.

Our track record in pandemic prediction is zero. No one predicted Covid-19. No one predicted the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic. Back then, the smart money was on a chicken virus from Southeast Asia. Instead, it originated from pigs in northwestern Mexico.

There are no practical benefits to Gain of Function research. Meanwhile, the risk of a laboratory accident or leak is very small, but as we know from history, not zero and has unforeseeable consequences.

Balancing risks and benefits should be a no-brainer. It was for me and for others who do not believe in making the world a more dangerous place. Yet this is a fearsome problem that has not been solved in a decade.

Two weeks ago, a targeted group of data analysts, researchers and online detectives under the colorful name Drastic dug up a 2018 proposal from the EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based organization, to conduct Gain of Function research on bat coronavirus by cutting and insert different genome parts. All hell broke loose.

The American project leader was the British scientist Peter Daszak, who heads EcoHealth. He has worked for years with Chinese researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology – most notably with Shi Zhengli, the world’s leading expert on bat coronavirus. The Chinese call her ‘Batwoman’.

The disturbing revelation was reinforced by the discovery EcoHealth suggested surgically precise modifications that would push these viral chimeras even further down the road towards what, blankly, can be called a coronavirus that is admirably suited to infect humans.

And we can all agree that SARS-CoV-2 is a macabre success story. Fortunately, the proposal was rejected by DARPA, the US Defense Agency, on the grounds that it constituted Gain of Function work. What we do not know – and much need to know – is whether this proposal was presented elsewhere, funded and implemented.

Remember that the proposal was written in 2018, 18 months before the eruption in Wuhan.

Researchers in a laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province

Researchers in a laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province

I’m scared of the idea that this pandemic could have started in a lab. Now throw clear evidence – much of it revealed by this newspaper – into conflicts of interest, cover-ups and covert lobbying on behalf of some of these researchers and their supporters, and you have a corrosive brew.

We have witnessed the shameful humiliation of any voice contemplating a laboratory leak of any kind, a disgrace that has no role in scientific debate. Yet no apologies have been heard.

Given the enormous dangers associated with Gain of Function virology, we need a worldwide ban on conducting and funding Gain of Function research until international and legally binding standards are set.

The UK, with its expertise in virology and excellent academic institutions, is ideally suited to take the lead – as it did with the creation of the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972, headquartered in Geneva and the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, administered by the Organization for the Prohibition. against chemical weapons in The Hague.

Britain could start the process by building international support leading to an agreement as a precursor to an international treaty.

Such an initiative could be launched by a trio of countries, such as the UK, Germany and Japan. For once, it is no exaggeration to say that world security is at stake.

Simon Wain-Hobson is Professor Emeritus, Pasteur Institute, Paris and President, Foundation for Vaccine Research, Washington DC.


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